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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 394 of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1990 article “The Domain of Constitutional Economics” as it is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty (original emphasis):

As phenomena increase in complexity, the imaginative elements in perception increase relative to those that emerge directly from the senses.  In this progression from the simple to the complex, the similarity in perceptions among persons must decrease.  What may be called the natural way of observing phenomena fades away at some point along the spectrum.

Among the most naive of all opinions about science is that it is, or ideally should be, exclusively data-driven.  Theoretical priors (this naive opinion scolds) must be suppressed as far as is humanly possible.  The stuff of science is only that which is seen, measurable, concrete.  And the scientist’s role is merely to observe and record as accurately as possible, and in as much detail as our tools of observation and measurement permit.

This naiveté is especially pronounced in economics and other social sciences where, because some phenomena are both observable and quantifiable (such as the prices of apples and the number of apples sold), it is believed by some that observing and measuring such phenomena are the only proper roles of an objective social scientist.  To have priors about any causal connections between price and quantity – even priors that conform to a deep pool of human experience, to observed and measured phenomena outside of the particular object of the current investigation, and to a long-used and ‘tested-by-reason’ theory – is regarded by such naive ‘scientists’ as unscientific.

In reality, the unscientific ones are those who naively and mistakenly think themselves to be mere and objective observers when, in fact, they are not – and they cannot possibly – be any such thing.

Complex reality – and no reality is more complex than human society – can be understood not through atheoretical observation (even if, contrary to fact and human nature, such observation were possible).  Instead, such understanding requires theory.  That theory must, of course, conform to observed reality; the very point of any theory is to tell a story that makes observed reality understandable.  But observation alone – in addition to being humanly impossible – cannot possibly explain reality.  And the more complex is the reality, the greater the reliance necessarily is on theory.